For the most part, the WAC figures to be a big jumble this season.
Sure, New Mexico State is the favorite to finish on top and Chicago State holds the same mantle for the bottom. But other than that, it’s hard to tell how the league will shake out once the attention turns to Las Vegas in March. At present, KenPom projects that seven of the conference’s nine teams will finish between 7-9 and 10-6.
There are plenty of narratives flowing through that pile of teams, one of which is CSU Bakersfield’s final season in the WAC — and wouldn’t it be fitting if the ‘Runners ran off to the Big West with a surprising farewell campaign?
When CSUB announced it was joining the Big West in 2017, then-university president Horace Mitchell talked with Bakersfield.com about why the move made sense.
“When we made the decision to move to Division I some years ago...It’s been something that we aspired to. That was, to be in the Big West Conference,” Mitchell said. “It’s the conference that’s made the most sense for us. In terms of the institutions that are involved, in terms of the geography.”
During that same press junket, Mitchell and Athletics Director Dr. Kenneth “Ziggy” Siegfried both praised the WAC for what it had meant to a school that had transitioned to Division I in 2007.
“It is a little bitter-sweet,” said CSUB Athletics Director Kenneth “Ziggy” Siegfried. “The WAC has been phenomenal to our program and our institution. They’re a big reason for our growth and our success.”
That sentiment should go both ways: CSUB has meant quite a lot for the WAC too.
Men’s basketball in the country’s most geographically-diverse league is generally on solid footing. Last year was a boon from a numbers standpoint, with the conference finishing in or near the upper half of the NET (16th) and KenPom (17th) conference ratings. Within those metrics, the WAC finished ahead of leagues it likely aspires to be mentioned with from a competitive standpoint, such as the Horizon and the CAA.
And in carving out that men’s basketball niche, it’s attracted coaches based on the program potential within the league. That was what Jim Hayford said drew him to Seattle from a stable Big Sky contender he had built, and what helped draw an exciting name like Mark Madsen from the NBA ranks to Utah Valley.
NMSU, juggernaut that it is, plays a big part in pulling all programs up with its rising tide. Grand Canyon’s and its box of riches doesn’t hurt either, nor does Cal Baptist and its seemingly significant cache of resources. And in general men’s basketball will shine in a league where only one team fields football (NMSU).
But the ‘Runners have also contributed a ton to the viability of the WAC.
Rod Barnes proved that you could build a nationally-relevant mid-major program in the league without having Pistol Pete parade the sidelines at your home games. The numbers speak for themselves during the ‘Runners’ WAC heyday. From 2016-18, the team went 49-19 (23-5), won a regular season and conference tournament title (in separate years) and had an average KenPom rating of 100.
Dedrick Basile, Jaylin Airington, Matt Smith, Aly Ahmed, Kevin Mays and others contributed to some big moments, elite defenses and plenty of wins.
The NCAA bid — which resulted in a largely competitive game with Final Four-bound Oklahoma — was the highlight of that run, but the run to the semifinals of the NIT the year after was just as impressive. It required three road wins to get there and, as our Russell Steinberg wrote at the time, it put the program in front of a national audience.
Through its years in the WAC, the ‘Runners brand under Barnes was distinct. As former NMSU assistant Jesse Bopp said, it was like walking into a rock fight.
“Their perimeter guys just guard the heck out of the ball, they get in you and make it a rock fight,” he said in a 2017 interview. “They make you earn every point you score. If you look at the first halves in our three games with them we might have combined for 50 points. I think it’s their identity, it’s who Coach Barnes is, they just believe they’re a defensive team and win on the defensive end. No matter who the guys are, they have a brand and identity.”
Other coaches have echoed that.
“They play so freaking hard, they come at you in waves,” former Seattle coach Cameron Dollar said in a 2017 interview.
Since that march to Madison Square Garden the ‘Runners have taken a step back, but have still been respectably competitive (37-43, 13-18). In the present, they opened WAC play with a seven-point win over Grand Canyon, breaking a three-game losing streak to the Lopes. It was a nice step from the non-con, which included several home games — South Dakota State, Sam Houston State, UC Santa Barbara — that just slipped out of CSUB’s grasp.
As always, Barnes is using a deep rotation to deploy his in-your-face defense, and has gotten a breakout season from ultra-athletic wing Taze Moore and quality point guard play from Northwestern State transfer Czar Perry. There’s also high ceiling guard De’Monte Buckingham, a former A-10 Rookie of the Year at Richmond who scored 25 points in the win over GCU.
A big Golden State tilt against CBU on Wednesday night could be telling as to whether the ‘Runners have the juice to emerge at the top of the WAC’s jumbled middle. That type of win against a very good Lancers team could also really grab attention, something CSUB did at a national level during the 2017 NIT.
“I think now on a national level, people are starting to realize we have a pretty good program here in Bakersfield,” Barnes said at the time.
That Barnes was able to build that type of run in the WAC was something positive for both sides, and should be the enduring image as the ‘Runners head to the Big West. That is, unless there’s one final magical run with the WAC patch on CSUB’s jerseys.